Today we’re going to look at 3 easy ways to create “Light Leak” style effects in Photoshop.
Let’s get a couple of things out of the way right up top. Yes, we’re aware that light leaks aren’t exactly a new idea, and we’re also aware that “Light Leaks” has become a catch-all term for an effect or look that might not strictly be a light leak. But they’re easy, fun and can look great on the right image... and nobody said Photoshop had to be serious!
So let’s start with the most basic method which involves painting on a layer with a big, soft brush. As you can see below I haven’t been careful with this, just one or two strokes with a large soft brush on a separate layer to our image.
To achieve the ‘leak’ effect we need to change the layer Blend mode to “Screen” so the colour sits transparently over our image layer and lightens and colorizes the underlying pixels.
We can then try experimenting with additional layers using different colour combinations and try moving, scaling, rotating any of the layers to get the colours to interact in different ways. We also have the option to change any of the colours using Hue & Saturation which means the original colour we paint with isn’t important – we can experiment with what colour works best with a particular part of our image.
It’s also worth experimenting with different combinations of Blend Mode as they all yield different results. Screen, Colour Dodge, Linear Dodge, Overlay, Soft Light, Linear Light are all viable candidates here as are several others.
So far, so easy – now let’s look at our second method. This one is more of a precision approach but just as effective.
Going back to our base image, add a Gradient Fill layer with the Blend Mode set to screen – feel free to try other blend mode but Screen is a good place to start when building your gradient.
Since we want the light leak to only effect part of our image you’ll need a gradient that fades out to 0% opacity.
Alternatively we can fade to black with 100% opacity when using a Blend Mode like Screen as this would also render as transparent. Try both approaches as the colours will render into the image in slightly different ways, especially in the transitional area between the colour and transparency.
Whichever option you go for the key to getting a convincing light leak is the choice and position of the colours within the gradient – this is where you’ll spend the time.
Typically, warm colours in the yellow and red hues work well as do colder magentas but try different combinations and see what works. Ultimately it’s about how the colours interact with your image so there are no absolutes.
The third and final method is the most experimental but can often yield the best results. Make a selection over a small area of your image and copy it to a new layer ( Cmd/Ctrl+J).
Now change the Blend Mode to Screen and use the Free Transform tool (Cmd/Ctrl+T) to scale this up to cover a large area of your image.
We’re on the look-out now for any interesting blends between the 2 layers – this is very much about happy accidents. Once you find something of interest hit OK. If the layer looks a little pixellated try using Gaussian Blur to soften out any noticeable details.
From here on it’s all about experimenting – try moving and scaling, try changing tone and colour with Levels, Hue & Saturation etc. We’re using our layer as a piece of texture so there are no rules – copy a section from this image or any other image. Use the same section of image in different ways over more than one layer, and use a Layer Masks to isolate the bits that work and disregard the rest.
Because we’re using a piece of image to render the light leak you get variations that don’t occur as easily with the other methods and this often leads to the most interesting results. That said, all the 3 methods work well, especially with an image that lends itself to leak effects.
So now you have 3 options to play with. Painting by hand is the best option when you need a quick fix, and using Gradient Layers is the precision approach when pursuing a more exact look. If you have the time to experiment then using image layers to introduce additional texture is the way to go. Or maybe you’ll end up combining all 3...!